ask the readers: insecurity about a new job … and working on the down-low

I’m buried under a pile of work today, so I’m throwing this one out to readers to answer. A reader writes:

I’ve found myself in a weird situation that I’m not sure how to navigate. I’m new to my job (~3 months in), and a lot of what I’m doing is a stretch — not in the sense that I’m incompetent or incapable, but I’m still learning a lot and working really hard at things that would come more naturally to someone more seasoned.

To give myself a better sense of security, and possibly to assuage some of the happy-guilt I have at being in this job when there could be a more qualified candidate, I routinely work extra, at least a little every day. One night I stayed until 9:00 because I said I would finish a project by a certain (ambitious) date and I was taking scheduled, approved leave the next day. I foolishly sent an email with a timestamp which my manager saw, and I think he was confused why I didn’t report the hours. I didn’t really know how to explain myself because I’m obviously dealing with weird internal issues regarding work, self esteem and insecurity.

How should I move forward? HOW DO I STOP BEING WEIRD ABOUT THIS? Any advice or input would be so helpful.

Readers, do my job here!

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    This is one of those situations where you are best served by talking to someone. I know it sounds _crazy_, but have you tried approaching your manager about this? Let them know that you feel as though you may need more training/guidance and ask what kind of help you can get from them. There is no reason to give them free work. If nothing else, it will make it look like you have poor time management skills and are trying to cover your tracks.

    1. Crazy for TEAPOTS!*

      “If nothing else, it will make it look like you have poor time management skills and are trying to cover your tracks.”


      In essence, you are basically lying and lying violates trust. Autonomy comes from trust. New projects come from trust. Promotions come from trust.

      You have to do your part.

    1. D*

      Oops! I should have poked around AAM’s archives for imposter syndrome before posting random other links. I forgot she addressed that recently, too. We are all brain twins.

    2. EJ*

      Absolutely. Imposter syndrome is very very common. And it passes in time. You will ‘grow into’ your role. Just don’t try to overcompensate in the meantime.

  2. D*

    Definitely stop working for free! Always report all of your hours. Your employer can get in serious trouble if you are doing work that you’re not getting paid for. And it also undermines you because it looks like you don’t value your time and work.

    Second — This is very common and is often called “imposter syndrome.” Assuming that you can actually handle the work (which your post seems to indicate), it’s possible that you’re insecure and nervous about it. This is normal and is something you can overcome. Here’s a webpost about it:

    You can google and find ways to deal with it.

    Finally, if you ever read the website, this topic comes up every now and again in the comments. You can do a google search for imposter syndrome on that specific website and find lots of posts about women who suffer from it and have overcome it.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      Another reason to report all your hours is for bidding purposes. Your employer needs the actual amount of hours worked on a project so they can accurately estimate the work effort on new projects. If you continuously under-report your hours, your employer may under-bid. That will result in an unexpected cost on the next project when someone else works those hours.

      1. Camellia*

        Also, if they think you are accomplishing X amount of work in 40 hours but it is taking you 50 hours, what will happen if they think some overtime is needed for a particular project? You could then find yourself working 55 to 60 hours a week instead of the 45 – 50 that your manager is expecting.

  3. Jamie*

    We need a link to the post where we talked about how many of us feel like imposters. I’ll look for it after I post this.

    But know this – A lot of us feel like imposters! No kidding when I took the job I have no I felt so completely over my skis I knew any minute they were going to figure out I was a fraud and fire me.

    I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t lie on my resume or interview so as long as I didn’t misrepresent I wasn’t really a fraud – they just weren’t smart enough to realize how much I sucked.

    Then I figured out that wasn’t the case either – they are plenty smart and if I sucked I’d have heard about…so the only other alternative was for me to try to ratchet my internal standards for myself way the f**k down to something like normal people.

    It is totally common and totally normal – and I’m the last person on the planet to give advice on how to stop being weird about this…but just accept that some people are internally driven a little harder than other people and even if you aren’t clearing whatever imaginary bars you’ve set in your head you are probably clearing the bars they set in street shoes.

    Oh, and since you mention he was put off that you didn’t report your hours I assume you’re non-exempt? If that’s the case and you’re working one unreported/unpaid minute STOP THAT RIGHT NOW! That is illegal and even though you’re trying to be nice you’re opening them up to serious liability.

    1. Ellie H.*

      I had forgotten about impostor syndrome. I have that about my age. I’m 25 and I have to plan meetings with and send official notifications to and set deadlines and stuff for people with Ph.D.s. Both my parents are professors (and my mom is a professor at the university I work at) and so I have been raised in this kind of culture of deference to academia and I always feel guilty and weird imposing any kind of authority to these people with Ph.D.s who are way older than I am. Especially because I’m applying to grad school this year so I feel like a student most of the time. I have to remind myself that I am really supposed to be doing what I’m doing.

  4. Jessie W*

    One thing a friend told me that really stuck with me: In every job interview, she would mention to her interviewer that she’s not the QUICKEST learner, but once she does learn, she will do it the best they’ve ever seen. “I’m a quick learner” tends to be most people’s fall back “strength” even if it’s not true.

    So many of us assume that we have to be quick at developing new skills. Sometimes, it takes us a little longer. And that’s okay. Definitely express you concern about wanted to perform to the utmost expectations, but be honest about the time it has taken you, with the learning curve. Maybe your manager could enlist you in some training classes, so you’re not tasked with teaching yourself the skills that are required of your position.

    1. sophylou*

      I love this. There are some areas where I really am a quick learner, but others where I am not, and I worry about painting myself into a corner by touting my fast-learnerness.

  5. Becky*

    I’m fairly certain that unless you are a salaried worker (I don’t know if it’s exempt, but I believe so), this is actually illegal, and if I was your employer I would be upset that you are working and not claiming it, as I could then get in trouble for not paying you overtime. It can also raise work comp issues.

    I agree with Anonymous 3:04 – talk to your manager. They understand that there is a learning curve, and should be happy to help you figure out the most efficient way to do your job. They want you to succeed, and they hired you for a reason. Let them help you!

    1. Jamie*

      Salaried doesn’t always equal exempt – but as it’s common in a lot of places to have salaried = exempt and hourly=not exempt a lot of people think they are related.

      It’s the exempt/non-exempt designation that matters. If you are exempt the hours are irrelevant legally – but non-exempt she’d need to be paid for every minute she worked.

    2. V*

      Even if the OP is salaried, the employer may charge clients by the hour, in whcih case the OP’s unbilled time is lost profits for the employer, which is not a good outcome either. The OP should bill all of the time spent on a project and let the manager write of some of the time if necessary.

  6. Just a Reader*

    Talk to your boss and ask for expectations of ramp up/how long it should take to complete projects.

    I just did this with my boss and she said she expected it to take a YEAR to get fully comfortable with my role and all it entails.

    Your being aware of this and wanting to work hard is great; hiding hours from your manager and not disclosing your feelings of unease can be a red flag. Remember: transparency can do nothing but benefit you, but trying to cover things up can bite you hard.

  7. lauren*

    Your company hired YOU. not someone more qualified, not someone less qualified. Unless you overexaggerated on your resume and interview, the company knew what they were hiring! Be happy about that!

    …However, do you feel that the company maybe hired you being less experienced over a more qualified candidate to save money and bring you on at a lower pay rate? …and hold you to the expectations they’d have for a more senior person? If so, then yes – it may be worth talking about.

    1. Diane*

      Kirk: “Scotty, I need those warp engines up now!”
      Scott: “Cap’n, it’ll take 3 days to get these beauties running again. I’ll work as fast as I can.”
      8 hours later, the engines hum back to life . . .
      Kirk: “Scotty, you’re a miracle worker!”

      And that’s how it’s done.

      1. Zed*

        Then there’s this…

        Scotty: Do you mind a little advice? Starfleet captains are like children. They want everything right now and they want it their way. But the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.
        Geordi: Yeah, well, I told the Captain I’d have this analysis done in an hour.
        Scotty: How long will it really take?
        Geordi: An hour!
        Scotty: You didn’t tell him how long it would really take, did you?
        Geordi: Well, of course I did.
        Scotty: Oh, laddie. You’ve got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker.

        — TNG, “Relic”

  8. Laurie*

    The other comments about feeling like an imposter and talking to your manager stand, but I’ll throw in my 2 cents.

    You could tell the boss that you were getting a lot of ideas and felt like seeing that job through, so you stayed longer that day. If overtime’s a problem, you can offer to adjust it against your normal 8-to-5 hours the following week but if your boss insists on giving you overtime, what could you possibly have against more money?

    Also, I am not sure you should be telling your boss that you feel overwhelmed. There’s a risk that you’ll come across as either having lied on your resume or during the interview that you could handle the job, or your boss might be disappointed that you’re not up to the task and stop giving you the projects you’re learning so much from. I’d word it carefully as you enjoying the work but wanting to get clear on priorities, or wanting feedback on if you’re doing it right.

        1. Jamie*

          Seriously, if people had any idea how often the answer to “how did you fix that?!” was “I don’t know – just messed around until it started working.” Oh and “Google” then everyone would want our jobs.

          And I am not giving up this chair without a fight – so we should keep this to ourselves.

          1. Bridgette*

            Even if we told them the Secret of Google, they would still ask us how to use Google and end up downloading viruses.

            So take heart – your chair is safe.

          2. Malissa*

            Uh-oh, maybe this is why every thinks I’m an IT person…
            You just described exactly what I do when I have to put that hat on.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                The man who comes to repair my PC does this.

                He is absolutely brilliant.
                And yet, this is what he does, he Googles, follows the directions and the computer is all fixed.

                See, you guys, there are huge parts of this story that we are skipping here. One piece of the story is that to be a good guesser- you have to have some experience/familiarity. It takes some background knowledge to decide whose instructions to follow.
                You also have to keep track of what you have done in case you need to UNdo. Lastly, if you call for help you have to have an idea of who is actually going to be helpful. (I am sure there are other things to point out- am just trying to get stir some thoughts here.)

                OP, there are two sides to the story- the newbie side where a person is faking it until they make it. And the seasoned expert side that has so much familiarity with the job- they are totally convinced a child could do their job. (We don’t let ourselves up for air, do we???) Neither is true. The new person has something to offer as well as the established employee. It is just different offerings because of their stage of professional development.

                Let yourself up for air, OP. Ask your boss how long the learning curve takes. (Like others here, I would guess a year.) Ask the boss how you are doing – are you coming along as expected? doing better? need some beefing up?
                Sounds like you like the job/company. Don’t be afraid to say so. And don’t be afraid to say you want to do a darn good job.

          3. KayDay*

            I am about as knowledgeable as a sewer rat when it comes to computers, but all my bosses think I’m some sort of free-tech-support-genius (we pay for outsourced IT support) because I follow this cheat sheet:
            (p.s. sorry if I’ve shared this before, but it’s just so accurate to my life)

            1. Jamie*

              I love that – I doubt there is an IT office without a copy of that somewhere.

              Genius ain’t free…promise me you’ll repeat that to yourself like a mantra before your next review/raise discussion.

                1. Jamie*

                  Well played, my friend. :)

                  Although my last display of true genius was June 28th so I need to start making some magic happen.

                  Or, as end of year approaches, find a way to remind people of my awesomeness Jan 1-June 28th…and perhaps not focus so much on how spectacularly adequate I’ve been since.

            2. Ellie H.*

              Totally – I started a slightly different job a few months ago where I would be using Excel much more (like, at all) than I had been before. I was freaked out because I had NO idea how to use Excel and the idea of it seemed very foreign and overwhelming although I’m a very quick learner. I was trying to read manuals and stuff. Then I realized that even though there are a lot of tricks I still don’t know, I can basically do anything in Excel by googling “how do I ____ Excel” and it works out.

  9. KellyK*

    Like everybody else said, report the hours you work. If you’re non-exempt, this is illegal.

    Even if you’re exempt, it’s useful to know how long it’s taking you to do things. (Your work might also have some flexing of hours if they can’t offer overtime. If you worked a 12-hour day, then took a day off, some places would treat that as a normal vacation day, but at others you’d only have to take half a vacation day because you’d worked the hours.)

    Second, I think it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and insecure when starting a new job. And, yeah, imposter syndrome. It might always feel that way. But if you check in with your boss and coworkers on needs and expectations and people are happy with your work, then you’re probably doing okay.

  10. Rob Bird*

    Insecurity about a new job is completly normal. I believe most people who start a job feel that same way. However, you shouldn’t be feeling guilt that there may be more qualified people you there. Your employer saw something in your that they liked, you’ll have to trust they made the right decision.

    As far as the email with the time stamp; let your manager know what you were doing. Tell them you wanted to have the project done before you left on approved leave, but make sure to ask them if that is allowed or if you should have asked before working those hours.

  11. AG*

    Impostor syndrome aside, maybe focus on doing all the “being a good employee and coworker” things that aren’t job-description specific but are certainly valued and keep people employed: being courteous and friendly, being a team player, being on-time and appropriately-dressed, etc.

  12. The IT Manager*

    Oh, I am totally with you, OP. I presume that you’re non-exempt meaning that you work a strict 8 hour day. I feel your frustration because I am salaried, non-exempt (yes, you can be both) and am very frustrated at the inflexibility of being non-exempt after being exempt for 15 years in ex-job. I also feel your pain because I feel I am behind of a huge learning curve with my project and feel like more hours would help.

    The moment may have passed, but you can explain for the instance that you got “caught” that you worked late to meet a deadline before taking vacation.

    I have one sort of sneaky suggestion for you, if you can do some work/research/study from home to do so. I mean background study and familiarization and not actual production. Can you bring home some of your reading material or even pick up a book from the library on topics you need to brush up on?

    Also I suspect that less than 45 minutes late won’t be terribly noticable on most days so you can still sneak a little extra in.

    You need to talk to your boss. Find out the OT rules and abide by them from now on. If you are non-exempt and are supposed to be reporting hours (or if you’re supposed to be billing a customers), you need to follow the rules. Find out if you might be able to get approved for OT easily.

    Talk to your boss and explain when you have too much to get it all done in time. It may well not your inexperience. A lot of people now-a-days have more on their plate than they can handle in a standard 8 hour day. Frame the discussion as “I have A, B, and C tasks and don’t think I can get them all done on schedule without over time, how would you like me to prioritize?” Even if your inexperience is the cause, lots of people still have lots to learn three months into a new job. In this way you are probably not an uniquely slow nowflake.

  13. businesslady*

    I agree with the above posters advocating a heart-to-heart with your manager & noting that, if you’re non-exempt, you should’ve been paid for that time.

    that said…I’ve been in a non-exempt role where unpaid overtime was basically expected/demanded, or at the very least tolerated. (I realize this is illegal, & yes, I tried to advocate for a switch to exempt status; in the end, it was easier & better to just change jobs.) so while a good boss who’s invested in you will likely be a great resource in this situation, there’s a slight risk that an unscrupulous one might hear “this person is willing to work unpaid overtime” & take advantage of that.

    I certainly hope this isn’t the case with you (& you may not even be a non-exempt employee, in which case this is a moot point), but it’s always good advice to be wary of setting a precedent that you can’t maintain.

    1. The IT Manager*

      At this point, I do not suggest the OP go back and try to get paid overtime for the extra time she worked “on the down-low” since starting the job.

      If she wants/needs to do overtime in the future she should discuss with her boss first and determine if he’ll grant any overtime requests or if he’ll tell her that she should just go home at the end of the day insead of pushing herself so hard when he may not be asking that of her.

  14. Bridgette*

    OP, when I started my current job, I was coming in with about 3 years of experience in a very similar position. I still felt like an idiot child after 3 months, because things were so different in my new company, even though the job title was essentially the same. It just takes a while to get a handle on a new job and new tasks. And now, almost 3 years in my current position, my job is transforming and I am learning some very new things (like certain types of programming) that I have never done before, and I’m back to feeling like an idiot child. But it’s a learning curve. It’s normal to feel and think what you are experiencing, especially when you are new to the job.

  15. Cindy*

    I’m not suggesting *at all* that the OP needs this, but I thought everyone discussing imposter syndrome might be interested in knowing that there is actually a 12-step group for people who have severe problems with this and related behaviors. It’s called Underearners Anonymous. There was a fascinating article about the organization in Harpers this summer.

  16. Sarah*

    It sounds like part of the problem is that you aren’t sure what the expectations are, so you are pushing yourself extra hard to get things done. Talk to your manager about what the priorities are and when deadlines should be set. If you can’t get everything done in a day, just communicate about it and find out what the next step should be. When you are working hard and doing your best, you have nothing to hide. Just put it out in the open. It’s okay to ask questions. You don’t have to be perfect. I guarantee your coworkers aren’t perfect either!

  17. Bob G*

    I’m always amazed when I attend a training session on a new product or something similar how many people will shake their head that they understand something, and I’ll be sitting there thinking “I don’t really get it yet”.

    After a few years I realized that some people think they understand it, but what they consider “understanding” and what I consider “understanding” are two completely different things.

    As people often say “you don’t know what you don’t know”. Some people are trying to see the big picture of how everything fits together and works and others just see that small snippet and think they know it all.

    Here is hoping that the OP is one that is trying to see the big picture and doesn’t realize that seasoned doesn’t always mean brighter or more intuitive and the quality of your work may be exceeding those that are more seasoned and doing it quicker or with less apparent effort.

      1. Bob G*

        Great link Rana. I think the key for the OP and from your link is that you want to be the person who realizes when the work is not quite good enough, even if you don’t know how to make it good enough. Those are the people that are destined to be successful.

  18. Anony*

    I have the same exact issue as he OP. I just started a new job via internal transfer. I’ve been in that position for a few months and I never received any formal training. It was a learn as you go thing. So I would receive a little guidance before doing the assignment, then I would be on my own and after completing the assignment, I found out that I goofed up and have to redo it. This same situation happens over and over again. So as I was reflecting back these past few months since I first started, I feel like I am not meeting the expectations b/c I have messed up on so many assignments.

    I stay about 1/2 to 45 mins the most to try to show that I do care about my work but the hours go unreported and I am non-exempt which is frustrating. It’s even more frustrating that they would give me remote access from home but I can’t even use it b/c of the whole non-exempt thing.

  19. Max*

    OP, keep in mind that the company (presumably) knows what they’ve got. You don’t need to feel guilty about not being more qualified, because the company looked at your qualifications and decided that you were the one for the job. They CHOSE you, knowing full well that you weren’t necessarily the most qualified person in their field; whatever their reasons were, it’s clear that they were willing to accept your inexperience when they made their choice.

    Unless you deceived them somehow during the hiring process, there’s absolutely nothing for you to feel bad about: the company got what they wanted when they chose you, and it’s certain that they took your level of experience into account when they made you the offer.

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